Tactical White Supremacy and the Harper’s Letter
The recent deceptively-titled Harper’s letter, A Letter on Justice and Open Debate (https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/ ), embraces the sort of narrow-minded, strategic behavior it purports to criticize. Relying on vague references, sweeping generalizations, and conservative dog whistles, it only serves to infuriate with its mirror effect: its focus on hypocrisy. This letter calls for the cancelling of the alleged ‘cancel culture’ yet fails to acknowledge its own hypocrisy in its very declaration. Instead, it opts for ‘ignorance,’ the long-standing tack of signatories in a white supremacist society with which we are becoming more and more nauseatingly familiar. It seems that, when one’s previously established dominance is starting to fade, any amount of self-deception is acceptable as long as it defends that dominance; that is, any attempts that subordinated people make to speak up in the face of oppression is handily bait ‘n switch’ed into victimization of the dominant, Macchiavelli-style.
In its essential hypocrisy, this letter expresses the most fundamental conquest-like behavior while framing the discussion as outside of the dictates of power by using the deceptive word ‘persuasion’, yet another layer of hypocrisy. The signatories fail to mention that persuasion is only possible if one has a voice; thus, the only people allowed to ‘persuade’ are the ones who already have power. ‘Persuasion’ is a circular approach: if marginalized peoples aren’t allowed to speak about oppression — instead, their voices are called ‘cancel culture’ — then marginalized people never have the opportunity to persuade. Hannah Arendt’s theoretical ‘persuasion’ doesn’t work because in real life, marginalized peoples aren’t invited to her ‘republic;’ only privileged ones like her are invited.
Thus, ‘persuasion’ has become the word conservatives use to phrase their elitist advantage as the norm. This cronyism is obvious when some of these signatories, blind adherents to the ‘Arendt Center’ at Bard, all appear on the same letter (one can imagine them calling each other to talk about their brave, new foray into ‘openness’ and ‘justice.’) The very definition of cronyism doesn’t embody the meaning as much as this incestuous approach does; it isn’t just a bunch of stuffy academics but very specific ones.
In fact, this letter expresses a number of deceptive maneuvers as is typical of dominant, deceptive strategizing and the history of white supremacy. It should be clear that ‘whiteness’ is not necessarily about white skin only; there are people of all races and ethnicities who embrace the dictates of the dominant group. Cleverly, this tack is used to distract from reality. It shouldn’t. ‘Whiteness’ is about the preservation of our current power structure; white supremacy, as a political-philosophical fascism, includes: ‘white,’ ‘male,’ and ‘cis’ regardless of skin color, sexual orientation, or gender, and anybody who adheres to these regardless of physical appearance.
One such signatory and tactician, Thomas Chatterton Williams, who also helped craft the letter, jam-packed it with his habitually vague statements. As Tobi Haslett notes in his review of Williams Self-Portrait in Black and White, Williams typifies this lack of authentic thought processing: “Incoherence is courage, incoherence is pluralism, incoherence is an ideological opera full of swordfights and forbidden love. Incoherence thrills and exhausts people; in this way, it resembles thinking.” (https://www.bookforum.com/print/2603/thomas-chatterton-williams-s-confused-argument-for-a-post-racial-society-23610
“Law#44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect.”
48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene
Haslett’s insightful observation can be summarized by Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, in which he underlines various deceptive strategic tactics used to maintain one’s power: “Law#44: Disarm and infuriate with the mirror effect.” This entire letter is a funhouse room full of distorted mirrors. Apparently, Williams doesn’t limit himself to saying not much of anything in his books only; this approach to his alleged ‘cultural criticism,’ which apparently consists of pretending our actual culture doesn’t exist at all and fashioning it in a manner he deems acceptable, is applied comprehensively throughout the letter. Regardless of intent or lack thereof, it operates as strategic conquest behavior that maintains the current power structure.
In order to identify basic definitions of conquest and the way in which dominance is negotiated — as it has been, in our context, for about 5 centuries — I offer summary definitions of Macchiavellian strategizing in order to identify the ways in which this letter simply positions its signatories as to preserve their elitism and power from Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power:
Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power:
Law #4: BE VAGUE
Law #6: Be mysterious
Law #24: Master the art of indirection
These strategies of dominance are the crumbs that the reader should follow in order to understand the fundamental tactical maneuvers involved in writing this letter. Fundamentally, this letter pushes back against the progress that marginalized peoples have made, which has most recently resulted in the ability of marginalized people to speak up after a protracted period of oppression and silencing. Conquest is fundamentally deceptive: it must be vague, or lie outright. Revelation of truth is anathema to conquest and deception; therefore, a tack must be taken which never reveals the ugly truth.
This tack, as the laws above indicate, typically involve vague statements and a lack of direction. This letter expresses both. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t express much of anything else.
1.‘weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity’
What, exactly, does this mean? Every word is vague in this context, and none are defined. ‘Weaken,’ ‘norms,’ ‘toleration,’ and ‘conformity’ are all open to a great deal of subjectivity.
For example, my idea of tolerating differences is this: women of color have tolerated gagging, abuse, constant subordination, and in the case of Black women/peoples, rape and murder for hundreds of years, worldwide. Thus, to me, increasing tolerance means we get to speak, for once, and finally. Similarly, other marginalized peoples can (finally!) speak. Finally, a Black woman — specifically, Hannah Jones — won a Pulitzer prize for relaying history authentically rather than participating in the sort of power-oriented distortion of reality which has been taught for the last few centuries. I suspect that Bari Weiss would not view this the same way; therefore, her idea of conformity would be different from mine.
Literally nothing is said in this quotation. What does this mean?
Obscuring the truth upholds the status quo by delaying change.
2. “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”
What particular incident? Why aren’t these interrogated? In a response letter to this one, other writers attempted to interrogate some vaguely referenced incidents, but why should the reader have to guess? (https://theobjective.substack.com/p/a-more-specific-letter-on-justice) What could possibly be the motive for NOT saying anything with these words? Why aren’t the writers specifying these? What is meant by narrow the boundaries? Or, without threat of reprisal?
For the last thirty years, my friends of color and I feel like we’ve been subject to constant threat of reprisals for speaking up about white privilege and the way in which our superlative performance is subordinated to white people’s mediocrity. Now, we get to speak up about the way in which our promotions have been given to white people. That is, the threat we felt by challenging those white people is going away. BUT we note that some of these white people — self-described liberals — feel their promotions are threatened by our reprisal. We feel our boundaries are being widened and that our threat of reprisal is diminishing; these white women feel that their boundaries are narrowing and that they are being threatened (because all other white people have privilege and unjust enrichment, but not them.)
I suspect these writers would interpret the vague notions in this letter differently. Without clarifying, we have no idea what these writers mean; the phrase is much too subjective. On the other hand, if they had bothered to clarify from the beginning, many of these signatories may not have signed. That’s tactical.
Our boundaries, as marginalized peoples, are widening. Allowing marginalized peoples to speak and to get the promotions we earned widens boundaries. Why do you suppose Bari Weiss, JK Rowling, Caitlin Flanagan, and Meghan Daum don’t like that, and prefer the term narrow boundaries? What are their chances of publication if women of color are given an equal playing field? I assume this is a frightening consideration for them based on their signatures, not to mention their long-standing privilege.
These words, again, say nothing of nutritive intellectual value. They exist to recalibrate a loss of power in the face of justice, which makes the very title of the letter hypocritical.
3. “we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”
Here, neither ‘intolerant climate’ nor ‘both sides’ is defined. What intolerant climate has been set on all sides?! I’ve lived almost six decades in the US, and for the first time in my life, I have seen an expansion of tolerance. The racism we are subjected to is nothing new: it is simply coming to the surface. Calling out racists and acknowledging long-standing white privilege and the way in which it unjustly enriches white people are expansions of tolerance. The fact that American history may be taught with an eye towards truth rather than the sanitized lies we’ve been fed though our public school system through the 1619 Project is an improvement; it is progress and growth to admit lies, and further deterioration to continue to promote them. Hundreds of years of distorted lies are not only potently ugly, they’re also embarrassing.
There isn’t any new intolerance on the white side: it is just revealing itself in the face of a shrinking proportional demographic. The intolerant climate coming from conservative Trumpers has always existed, as has the vigorous defense of dominance through highly contrived ‘ignorance.’ The difference is that the growing demographic of peoples of color — as well as acceptance of other forms of marginalization — has finally allowed marginalized peoples a voice.
Are there really ‘good people on both sides?’ Is an argument that upholds ‘classical liberalism’ — forged as it is in the fire of white supremacy — really a ‘good’ side? For how much longer — another half-era?! At the risk of sounding more specific than these writers may be able to tolerate, is defending the dictates of our current culture — embedded as it is in worldwide white supremacy — really a ‘good’ side?! Drawing an equivalence between people with extrinsic, unearned advantage/unjust enrichment and those who are oppressed by that group is fundamentally absurd: the oppressor and the oppressed are not the same in any pragmatic fashion: the oppressed are gagged in order to keep the oppressor powerful. These aren’t similarities: they’re differences. This letter eschews that difference as if the power structure doesn’t exist in order to maintain that power structure, much the same way color-blind racism maintains racism by pretending as if it doesn’t exist.
This letter is carefully-wrought, deceptive, conquest-oriented strategizing: it is deliberately nebulous because if it underlined its true intent, it likely wouldn’t have been published. It is tactical.
Alternatively, if there was no tactical white supremacy involved and simply a desire to say nothing with a lot of words, why not just talk about unicorns?